Retro Pipeline: "Excalibur" Year One & "Groo"


I've been re-reading the original "Excalibur" series from Chris Claremont and Alan Davis lately. I've made it through the first two trade paperback collections, which comprise the first 11 issues of the series, plus the original "Excalibur" Prestige Format one-shot that launched it all and the "Mojo Mayhem" Prestige Format book that featured Art Adams drawing the X-Babies. Can't go wrong there.

For those who may not have been around at the time: "Excalibur" debuted in the late 1980s, just after the X-Men appeared to sacrifice themselves to save the world in Dallas, Texas. Kitty Pryde, who wasn't with the team at the time, joins up with Captain Britain, Nightcrawler, Phoenix (Rachel Summers), and Megan, an alien shapeshifter and Captain Britain's significant other. Together, they live in a lighthouse on the British coast and fight off parallel universe versions of themselves, strange creatures from other worlds, and characters returning from the Alan Moore/Alan Davis "Captain Britain" run from an earlier time. It's a fun-loving series, with sympathetic characters, strong characterization, quirkiness in excess, and on-going subplots that keep you turning the page with gleeful abandon.

Having not read the issues in a number of years, it felt like reading things with new eyes. It's fun to see how early Claremont set things up. Widget -- the robotic portal to other dimensions -- is right there in the first issue and we still have no idea what he's doing at the end of the first year of the series. The classic Claremont plotting style with multiple plot threads advancing in parallel is on full display. This series wasn't written to give you a complete story every six issues for a neat trade paperbacks. It was written to bring you back to the stands every month to see what might happen next. Even during the two issues that crossed over with the larger "Inferno" event over in "X-Men," Claremont kept the series self-contained and kept the on-going subplots running. It was a diversion to send the team to New York City, but it also allowed for new plot points to be developed and for older ones to carry through.

More striking is the dialogue style. Much has been written about it, usually to a disparaging degree. It's a style that's been mimicked and parodied all at the same time, but it's also the style that launched a thousand other ships. It took a decade after Claremont's departure from the X-Men before his style wasn't a dominant force. There's a reason why Claremont used it, why people bought into it, and why it became so revered: It works. There's a rhythm to Claremont's dialogue that's unequalled in comics, particularly by those who try to copy the style and miss so much of it.

The trick is that the dialogue is direct and to the point, but also well broken up. There are few large balloons stuffed with text. That might surprise you to hear. I bet you picture Claremont's writing as being overly descriptive or florid. It's not. Yes, there are times when his captions set a scene with some prose more flowery than what you see today. But the dialogue? It's "Gilmore Girls" meets Brian Bendis. It's also why Tom Orzechowski was such an important and key piece to the style of all of Claremont's comics for the better part of 20 years. The comics never look so good or read as well without Orzechowski's bouncy letters and descriptive balloon shapes.

There are a lot of words on these pages. The average issue of "Excalibur" will take twice as long to read as anything Marvel or DC publishes today. I can read a six-issue collection of a modern series during my work lunch hour, but never got past three consecutive issues of "Exclibur" in the same time frame. The irony, though, is that it's a fast read. Claremont's dialogue moves. Your eyes move, because Orzechowski so expertly places those balloons in an easy to read direction, with enough personality to make you want to read the next balloon. There are times when characters hold discussions three or four words at a time. Claremont constrained himself beautifully. There's just more happening on an average page of 1989 comics than with 2012 comics.

Things you can learn from a Claremont script, writers:

  • Things don't need to come to a grinding halt for two characters to talk. They can do it while flying over the ocean, fighting an opponent, or racing to catch a train. This is also known as the Chuck Dixon Technique, where Robin and Nightwing will have a calm talk, but only if sparring on top of a moving train at the same time.
  • Break up your balloons. Even if a single character is delivering a long speech, break it down into bite-sized chunks. It'll feel more natural to the reader. And if you think you'll wind up with too many balloons, you're probably overwriting the scene, anyway.
  • Have identifiable dialogue quirks. Make fun of Rogue's southern accent or Moira's Scottish brogue all you like, but you could look strictly at the word balloons and know when one of them was talking. Ditto with Nightcrawler's German punctuation phrases or Colossus' Russian phrases.
  • Use the crowds. Nobody handles crowd scenes like Claremont, where he can fill a panel with short balloons representing the thoughts of a crowd so quickly.

All of this is on display in this single page from "Excalibur" #2. The only thing it's missing is a "Mein Gott!" from Nightcrawler, though I'm half sure he said that elsewhere in the issue.

Pay attention to the middle tier of panels, in particular. See the way the crowd's random bits of dialogue move the action and tell us of the panic and the movement? See at the bottom of the second panel how different people react so wildly differently to Nightcrawler, each in only two words? Nightcrawler's dialogue in that middle panel is all of seven words, but Claremont still breaks it up into two balloons. It gives it a more imperative voice that sells it better. Running that all into one balloon would feel like a long monologue in the middle of the action. In two balloons, it's more direct and immediate.

The art in this first year of "Excalibur" feels unfinished in some ways, by comparison to Davis' later return to the series. It's unmistakably Davis' lines on the page, but there's less fluidity. The key difference from this first run at the title to the second is the inks. Paul Neary handled the work in these two trades, while Mark Farmer came on for Davis' later run, and has stuck with Davis ever since. As Orzechowski is to Claremont, so Farmer finishes Davis. Neary is by no means a bad inker. He never did a bad job over Davis' line. But Farmer adds something extra of his own style to Davis' art that makes it sing in a new way. "Fluidity" is the word I'll always use. Things feel sleeker on the page. Lines are more round. The overall effect is stronger. But I'll save more of that dissection for a later time. I want to save further comment on the art for a follow-up column, when we can better compare and contrast Davis' two runs on the title.

One last bit of Orzechowski Worship before moving on, though: Check out just this panel from "Excalibur" #4 and tell me a good letterer doesn't make a difference in storytelling. You can hear the giggles in your head as you read this.

Here's a teaser Marvel put out to promote Alan Davis' return to the title with issue #42 a couple of years later.

These two trades are not all Davis' work. The original Prestige Format one-shot that debuted the team was all him, with beautiful airbrushed-like color art from Glynis Oliver that was popular on high-end books of the day. After that, Davis did seven consecutive issues. That's one better than any single artist has done on a modern Marvel series, roughly speaking. Ron Lim drew issue #8, which will look off to fans of Lim's "Silver Surfer" and "Captain America" runs of the same era. Josef Rubinstein's inks feel very thick when paired with Lim. He definitely helps Lim diversify his line weights, but the final effect doesn't work. Maybe Lim is the kind of guy who should only be inked with technical thin pens? Maybe.

Davis returned for "Excalibur" #9, but then disappeared for issues #10-11, which were handled by Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin. Tom Orzechowski also took those issues off. It was a whole new look for the series, but Claremont didn't skip a beat. Still, I bet it was culture shock for readers at the time. The letters columns limited the grumbling, but it was there a lot in future issues. The editors explained at the time that Davis/Neary had taken a couple issues off to ease the deadline pressures, but there were plenty of letter writers who thought "Excalibur" wasn't worth publishing without them. It must have been bad, because by the time Davis and Neary took another issue off, the letters column attempted to soften the blow by announcing it in the letters column of "Excalibur" #17:


The final part of the second trade paperback is a reprint of "Excalibur: Mojo Mayhem." Because it takes place just after Inferno and touches on the goings-on with "Excalibur," it's included here. It's mostly a Kitty Pryde story with a couple of cameos from her teammates, but it's a welcomed surprise, nonetheless. The big draw of the original 48-page Prestige Format one-shot is that Art Adams handled the art chores, and it does also function as a sequel, of sorts, to his then-recently completed "Longshot" mini-series. The X-Babies are zapped into the main Marvel Universe, where Kitty tries to protect them as a way of getting over her own feelings of inadequacies for not being able to save the then-recently-departed X-Men team.

Unfortunately, the book isn't very satisfying. The plot is thin, and the grand finale hinges on a twist of Kitty's phasing powers that feels like a stretch. If it weren't for the fact that everything surrounding Mojo is farcical, it would bother me greatly. Instead, it just feels like a bit of a cheat. It's a silly thing to get upset about since so much of the set-up is cartoony, but it did bother me.

That's the apex of the main plot which becomes a simple "Villain A picks off X-Men A-F one at a time by out-thinking them because they're stupid" -- they ARE the X-Babies, after all. Even that only starts about two-thirds of the way through the book. The villain is introduced and sent on his way at page 12, and then disappears while the Excalibur cast and X-Babies are set-up. The villain appears again on page 26. As "The Agent," he's there to get the characters to sign on to a contract with Mojo to lock their rights up with his production company. Something like that. So you wind up getting a couple dozen pages of random people trying to get the main characters to sign a contract through various shape-shifting chicanery. It's all obvious to the reader, so the general plot gets repetitive and not terribly exciting.

A lot of the book feels like cute scenes and fun bits strung together, though. Kitty moping around with powers issues. Wolverine being a bad boy. And then there's a villain to push them through some hoops.

Art Adams is strong for the first half of the book, and then something changes on page 24. Terry Austin is the first inker listed in the credits of the original comic. In the trade paperback, there are no separate credits for "Mojo Mayhem." The overall list of creators given on the inside front cover lists Terry Austin and Bob Wiacek as the only inkers not already shown in previous issues. So Wiacek inks the rest of "Mojo Mayhem," though the original printing extends the inkers list with "and Co." So who knows how many hands were involved.

I bet there's a great production story on this comic. Was this originally meant to be a two-parter in the main series? The fact that the inkers change at page 24 of a 48 page comic seems too coincidental to me to the standard 22 page comic. Remove the letters column and maybe a house ad and you could get a 24-page issue easily. Remember that the original series was a $1.50 comic at a time when the standard Marvel titles were a buck and a quarter. That helped get better paper stock and back cover pin-ups. Or maybe it was an Annual originally?

Just as badly, Tom Orzechowski disappears, to be replaced by another letterer, Jade Moede. The words no longer dance across the page. They feel squished in. There's no character to them anymore. The rapid fire balloon are still in place, but the letters that fill them are staid. It's a big letdown, and another clue that something was up with this book. Why change letterer and inker on the same exact page? There must have been a scheduling conflict somewhere along the way. Did X-Men go bi-weekly and Orzechowski couldn't squeeze more pages into his schedule? In the old hand-lettering days, that was a realistic issue. It's tough to think of a book needing a fill-in letterer today. With computer lettering, a single letterer can finish a book inside of a day. How far behind schedule would a book have to be to require multiple letterers? That would be pretty bad.

But, wait, it gets worse! Art Adams' work graces the cover of this "Excalibur Classic" trade, titled "Two-Edged Sword." It's not a bad piece of art, but it's the single worst coloring job I've ever seen on a collected edition cover. It was redone by Morry Hollowell, who would go on to do better work on bigger things (like "Civil War"), but this is inexcusably awful. It's murky, orange, dark. It hides the art. It doesn't pop out on the stands. It makes reading the art difficult. Awful, awful, awful. The trade reprints it inside with the original coloring, but I did a quick rescan of the original book to do a quick A/B comparison. There is no comparison. The new coloring just is just plain awful. Can I say "awful" often enough for you to get the point? Bad.

Oddly enough, the collected version of it also starts on the left side of the page, whereas the original book started on the right page. Any "turn the page and SURPRISE!" moments are ruined in the reprinting. That was an odd choice.

Other than that, though, there's a half book of nice Art Adams art and some fun little moments. It's worth a read, but don't get your hopes up beforehand.


Speaking of Marvel Comics from 20 years ago...

Matt Brady is blogging his way through "Groo," issue by issue. He's about halfway through the Epic run now. I haven't read all of these issues, but it's making me want to. I have most of them in trades I've acquired over the years, but I've always read "Groo" pre-issue #100 randomly. I don't have an idea how much of it I've read. Someday, I'll start at the beginning and plow my way through, too. For now, Matt is having all the fun, even when he doesn't particularly care for an issue.

I remember first reading "Groo" with issue #100, because "Marvel Age" made a big deal about Groo finally learning to read, starting with that issue. I bought that one and every one since. I particularly liked the all-too-short run at Image. The printing was awesome, and the stories were great, too, as I recall. And since I hadn't read 100 other issues of "Groo," it still felt new and fresh to me.

In any case, I hope Matt makes it all the way through the run, if only for the egoboost of seeing him write up my letters column appearances in the series much later on.

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